My Lords, the Government’s fiscal strategy is grounded in the clear, credible and specific consolidation plans and new fiscal framework announced in the June Budget of 2010. The fiscal mandate to achieve a cyclically adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling five-year forecast period has ensured a flexible fiscal response to economic developments by allowing the automatic stabilisers to operate and by protecting the most productive public investment expenditure.
My Lords, if that was an answer to my Question, I thank the Minister. The Chancellor used to be proud to claim the IMF as a supporter of his policies, but it has now said a number of times, and it is worth repeating, that the Chancellor might revisit his austerity programme. Does that mean that he is or he is not?
My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is a great reader of IMF reports and that he will, therefore, have read the following from its recent report:
“The commitment to a medium-term plan has earned the government credibility … While adhering to the medium-term framework, the government has shown welcome flexibility in its fiscal program”.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that this country currently has to borrow over £50 billion a year to meet its obligations, largely due to our inability to export? That £50 billion comes after selling some of our prime assets like our water companies and utilities which, for some reason, pension funds abroad think better of investing in than our own pension funds do. Leaving that aside, we have a floating pound and the only way that we can actually make ourselves more competitive is to let the pound float down. I hope that the Government and the new governor will encourage this.
My Lords, as the noble Lord said, we have a floating exchange rate. The Government do not set a target for the exchange rate; it responds to economic circumstances, including the decisions taken by the independent Bank of England.
Oh yes. I hope I do not have to remind the coalition how long it has been in power and it is about time it accepted some degree of responsibility. Some flexibility in the fiscal framework is called for, and the obvious flexibility is to extend the planning horizon—I advise the Government on this with no charge—to the whole length of the business cycle so that we could have some expansionary fiscal policies now, followed, in due course, by further fiscal adjustment. That is the way we ought to be going, and the sooner we have a Government that does it, the better.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, because he put down his Question before Ed Balls did a U-turn yesterday on the Labour policy that his Question reflects. However, would the Minister not agree that the greatest risk to recovery at the moment is the lack of credit as business returns to its growth phase and will need that credit in order to succeed? What is his assessment of the capacity of the banks to fill that need?
My Lords, the capacity of the banks to fill that need is shown by the latest borrowing figures, which are mixed. Of the 40 banks that are participating in the Funding for Lending scheme, 27 expanded their lending and 13 contracted it. There was a small net contraction—much less than in recent quarters. There is evidence that net lending will expand as the year progresses, as a number of banks—such as Santander, which is winding down its mortgage book—come to the end of programmes.
I will say yes to that as well. However, the Government completely agree with the point that the IMF made about the desirability of bringing forward infrastructure expenditure. That is why last year we put in place the infrastructure guarantee programme, which is already bearing fruit with the allocation of £1 billion to the Northern line extension to Battersea, and the recently announced £75 million to be given to Drax power station for its partial conversion to biomass.
Clearly some do view it as that. It is worth bearing in mind that while we are reducing our deficit to the 3% EU Maastricht target over the period to 2017-18, even the relaxation that the EU has agreed in recent weeks with France, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Spain will get them back to a target of borrowing of less than 3% by 2015 or 2016. It is therefore taking us a lot longer. The Government have agreed to phase down borrowing over a much longer period than is allowed even under the reduced timetable elsewhere in the EU.
My Lords, is my noble friend not concerned at the way in which asset prices, particularly housing and shares, are now being inflated as a result of quantitative easing? Will he confirm that this Government will never use inflation as a means to get rid of the debt, because that will result in substantial unemployment, a loss of competitiveness and the road to Carey Street?
My Lords, this Government will make that commitment, which is why the target that we set for the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has not been relaxed, and will not be relaxed during this Government’s tenure of office.